Judaism: Divrei Azriel: After the Plague
"It was after the plague.”
This is how the Torah introduces the counting final census of Chumash Hapekudim, Numbers. The nationwide idol worship of Baal-peor, the unthinkable mass immorality with the daughters of Moav and Midian and the ensuing deaths of 24,000 members of Am Yisrael had all been brought to a halt by the heroics of Pinchas. The plague had ended, the dust was settling and Am Yisrael could now return to focus on their pending entrance into Eretz Yisrael.
There is a tradition that this pasuk, which opens chapter 26 of Bamidbar, has a complete open break in the middle, called a “parsha petucha” (often symbolized with the Hebrew letter ‘Pey’), thus dividing it into two parts. In Sifrei Torah one will see that the first clause, “It was after the plague” is followed by a completely open line and the pasuk is concluded in the beginning of the next section, “and Hashem spoke to Moshe and Elazar ben Aharon saying...”
Why this oddity?
It seems that with this pasuk the Torah is not only establishing a clear close to the episode of Pinchas, but it is revealing a very stark transition from (nearly) 40 year desert period to a new reality of preparation for crossing into Eretz Yisrael. From the moment when Am Yisrael stepped away from Har Sinai and began the journey out into Midbar Sinai they knew nothing but woes. They had unconstructively whined and complained for food (11:1-4). They had seen reckless and unjustified use of prophecy (11:26). They had despaired of Eretz Yisrael in response to the slander of the spies (13:14). They then took matters into their own hands and attempted to force their way into Eretz Yisrael and were crushed (14:40). They had seen a blatant rebellion against Moshe and Aharon from Korach ve’adato (15). They had angrily protested over the lack of water following the death of Miriam (20:3). And most recently, they had sinned horribly with Baal-peor and the Benot Moav (25).
The plague which is being ultimately terminated is not simply that which brought 24,000 people to their judgment in this one episode. The entirety of the desert, midbar, experience had been a sort of plague, a magefa, for the Jewish people. It had not been defined by disease and death per se, but it had been an era of shortcomings and breakdowns of the Jewish spirit.
The exodus from Egypt had been the birth of the nation and the desert was akin to their adolescence. It contained the trials and tribulations which, although were very challenging and sometimes even heart breaking, would provide them with the necessary framework and motivation to enter into the realm of manhood. Now that they had finally made it to the end of their developmental voyage through the midbar, they could stand on the verge of the conquest ready for their future.
A fantastic depiction of this newfound maturity which the Jewish people had reached is found in the very first narrative which follows the census: the five daughters, Benot Tzlafchad. In a sense, the Benot Tzlafchad had a claim or complaint quite similar to those who had come before them in Bamidbar. They felt that their father’s loss of a share in the land was a grave injustice and they were being dealt with in a cruel fashion. In all likelihood their frustration and dissatisfaction with the system was not much different than that of the complainers and rebels who preceded them. However, when they presented their case it was done with a commendable sense of respect and honor. They approached Moshe without kicking and screaming and did not express even the slightest hint of anger or jealousy.
The Sfas Emes (Likutim, Parshas Pinchas) explains that this is meaning of Hashem’s opening to his response to the claim of the Benot Tzlafchad, “Ken Benot Tzflafchad dovrot,” they are speaking with integrity. Why, he asks, was it necessary to add in these words? Couldn’t the answer have simply begun with the words which begin to teach the halakhot of inheritances? The Sfas Emes explains that Hashem wanted to personally testify to their admirable grace and refinement. They were not seeking any personal gain or benefit and had come truly out of honor for their father. Their intentions were sound and their presentation was impeccable.
The Sfas Emes additionally points out a tradition (also quoted by the Baal HaTurim) that the word “dovrot” is used in only one other instance in the entire Tanach – in the account of the donation of building materials for the Beit Hamikdash from Hiram, King of Tyre. Shlomo Hamelech had requested cedar and cypress wood from Lebanon. Hiram acquiesced and sent a message to Shlomo Hamelech that the wood would be sent down the sea as log-rafts, “va’ani asimeim dobrot bayam.” (Melachim I:5:23) The word “dobrot” in that context refers to the floating log rafts.
The Sfas Emes derives that it is no coincidence that this word “dobrot” appears only in the context of the Benot Tzlafchad and the building of the Beit Hamikdash. For just as the Benot Tzlafchad embodied the mature and refined spirit of Am Yisrael, so too was the Beit Hamikdash the ultimate expression of the completion of our developmental process. The Benot Tzlafchad came forward with the utmost level of respect and honor for one another and for their leaders, and were coming in the spirit of the development of Am Yisrael, so too was the Beis Hamikdash the place which represented the ultimate unification of Am Yisrael.
The yemei bein hametzarim, the three weeks of mourning over our shortcomings and destruction, are here once again to remind us that we are in the midst of another stage of national maturation. For nearly 2,000 years we have been in the midbar of galus and there have been countless challenges which Am Yisrael has undergone. Only through our ability to face our current national challenges with the utmost level of maturity and strength of character will we be able to transition mei’yagon le’simcha, umei’eivel le’yom tov, umei’afeilah le’or gadol, umi’shiabud le’geula!
Ever get inspired about a ‘great idea’? Ever had your bubble burst by a ‘reality check’? It could be the best thing that ever happened to you…or the worst. On the one hand, it is possible to let our ideas run away with us. Sometimes, we just need to stop and think things over and we will immediately put things into perspective. On the other hand, who really knows whether that ‘great idea’ could have succeeded after all? Maybe we are limiting ourselves by ‘being realistic’. Maybe we should aim for perfection, even though we know that we will never reach it.
So here is the question: should we ‘keep it real’ or not?
Let us take a look at this week's parsha for some insight. We find two characters who are celebrated for achievements which are beyond what one may have expected of them. First, Hashem praises Pinchas, “because he was zealous for his G-d and atoned for the children of Israel.” As Rashi writes in Parshas Balak (25:6), Moshe forgot the halakha regarding how to tackle such a public outrage. However, Pinchas remembered it, and he stood up and carried it out, with Moshe's encouragement.
Secondly, the daughters of Tzlafchad were undeterred by hearing that they would lose out on their portion of the Land of Israel. Instead of resigning themselves to being denied such a precious spiritual inheritance, they went forward and brought their claim before the leaders – and were validated by G-d Himself.
Seemingly, it was partly the confidence and self-esteem of these heroes which empowered them to think independently and voice their opinions. They could have allowed themselves to be limited by peer pressure and keep quiet – but their moral duty demanded action! They were called on to fill vital roles which others could not.
Chazal declare (Tanna D'vei Eliyahu Rabba, 25) “One is obligated to ask himself, 'When will my actions reach those of my forefathers, Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov?'” As Nefesh Hachaim (Part 3, Ch. 14) explains, although we will never reach the level of spiritual perfection and elevation of Moshe, we must constantly try our very best to fulfill our own potential to the upmost, as our forefathers did.
It can be hard to believe in ourselves; in our abilities. But our mental picture of our future may be far below our true potential. When we have more confidence in our own abilities, our vision and life goals are much greater. What seemed so unrealistic now becomes a real objective, within our grasp.
We begin each morning by expressing our gratitude to our Creator. “Modeh ani lefanecha … rabbah emunasechah”. Some ask, why do we end with “rabbah emunasechah” – “great is Your faith”. Are we not expressing how much faith we have in Him? Apparently not. Rather, we are acknowledging that Hashem has great faith in us. Otherwise, why would He give us another day in His world, a new opportunity to serve Him. He has so many other creations, and billions of other humans, yet He chose to give us the greatest gift of all …life. Stop and think – what can you really achieve today? How much can you achieve in 365 days? In 120 years?
What is more, we do have great faith in Hashem. Although we are put in a world of ‘nature’, we know that ‘nature’ is really just part of Hashem’s providence, hashgacha. Ultimately, Hashem always has the power to run the world as He pleases. However difficult our challenges are, we know that Hashem can always elevate us above nature, tevah. If we only put our faith in Hashem, our potential is unlimited.